Archive for the Reviews Category

Review: The Punisher

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 1, 2018 by Magadh

A chamber in a dark castle in the mountains of northern Latveria. Around a stone table, mid-level executives sit, nervously fingering silver goblets filled with virgin blood. Torches flame and splutter on the walls.

 

At length, a tall and shadowy figure rises at the head of the table. Above his head, inscribed in letters of fire, the word “Marvel” floats in the empty air.

 

“Thank you for coming, gentlemen,” he says in a voice that sounds like the lid of a coffin creaking open. “We have a problem. We are losing the fight to DC. Our talent is fleeing, our readership is declining. The days are growing dark!”

 

The bravest of the mid-level executives stands up. “Not so, my dark lord. We still have the MCU. Age of Ultron grossed more than a billion dollars even though it had 37 central characters and no discernable plot.”

 

“Be not deceived,” the dark figure intones. “Batman v Superman grossed nearly as much even though absolutely nobody wanted to see it. Zack Snyder has cornered the market on dark, soulless superhero noir. He even managed to drum up $800 million for Wonder Woman!” He speaks the last words as if they burn like eternal flame in his mouth.

 

“We could release a Black Widow movie. Lots of people want that. Or how about Rogue? I have writers among my minions who could produce a salable script inside of a week.”

 

“No no! Our fans do not want lady movies! I know it in my bones. I feel it in the air and in the earth. It is with men, and the killing of the occasional female, that our destiny lies.”

 

“Perhaps Stan Lee can help us,” pipes up a voice from the far end of the table.

 

“No! He must not be awakened! The sarcophagus must remain closed for another two cycles! We must solve these problems among ourselves.”

 

“Sir, I have it,” says the chief of the mid-level execs. “We can make a Punisher series for Netflix. It has everything: darkness, violence, man pain, all the things our viewers want.”

 

“Yes…yes! That could be just the thing,” the dark figure muses. “Everyone loved him the second season of Daredevil, even more than the swarms of ninjas. But it will need to be epic. Man pain of this magnitude cannot be communicated briefly.”

 

“The number of the episodes shall be 13, in conformity with your will,” opines the lead exec.

 

“But wait,” pipes up the voice from the end of the table once more. “Aren’t we committed to doing another series of Jessica Jones next?”

 

“Speak not to me of Jessica Jones and her lady problems,” thunders the dark figure. “They shall be swept away in a hail of man fire and a wave of man blood! So I have spoken, so let it be done!”

 

And with that, the dark scene fades away.

 

the-punisher-season-1This is very much how I imagined the origins of the Punisher stand-alone series when I first saw the trailers for it a couple of months ago. As a character, the Punisher is a product of the anti-crime hysteria that arose with the end of the postwar boom in the early 1970s. It should come as no surprise that the first of the Death Wish movies was released in the same year, or that Travis Bickle made his debut shortly afterward. The economic downturn in the leading economies of the industrialized world and the perceived decline in American power dealt severe shocks to the national psyche, and whatever bitterness was not directed at the Soviet Union, its proxies in Southeast Asia, or (after the oil shock of 1973) the Middle East, filtered down to the purported wave of criminality on American streets and in American neighborhoods.

 

Frank Castle, like Paul Kersey (played with homicidal intensity by Charles Bronson in five iterations of the Death Wish franchise from 1974 to 1994), had lost his family to the unrestrained greed and brutality of the criminal element. Unlike Paul Kersey, and this was the unique element that the Punisher added to the genre, Frank Castle was a former Marine Corps sniper who turned skills learned in the military toward the goal of exacting vengeance on the mafia (which was directly responsible for his family’s death) as well as on criminals in general.

 

There is an interesting generational difference between Frank Castle and Paul Kersey. The latter is a middle-aged architect, probably old enough to have served in Korea and only haltingly prepared to turn to homicidal violence as a means to address society’s problems. Castle, as did so many young men in the early 1970s, had cut his fighting teeth in Vietnam and returned to the United States fresh memories of mayhem and the skills to undertake it. Straight up vigilantism, in which the targets were to be killed rather than simply trussed up and handed over to the proper authorities, was a novelty for American comics. Although originally meant as a sort of secondary character, Castle was popular with readers. It will come as no surprise (to anyone who doesn’t know it already) that the Punisher came to real prominence as a character in a run of Daredevil done in the early 1980s by Frank Miller, he of dark inclinations and moderate neo-fascist politics.

 

In that series, and in several others right up to the present day, the Punisher has been presented as a sort of other side of the coin in terms of strategies for dealing with evildoers. This has most often been the case with Daredevil, as Matt Murdock’s (often somewhat paradoxical) commitment to the validity of the system of criminal justice, as well as broader moral codes precluding the taking of human lives when not immediately necessary, contrasts starkly with Frank Castle’s “when I put ‘em down they don’t get up” ethic.

 

There is little in the way of surprise that Marvel decided that the Punisher would be a good subject for a stand-alone series in its collaboration with Netflix. His appearance in the second season of Daredevil was the best thing that show had going for it, especially since the second half of the series was devoted to the slaying of hordes of (already dead) ninjas and the pursuit of a gigantic hole of (at that point) indeterminate significance. Just as an aside, the question that I had after watching Daredevil Season 2 was: suppose you’ve got 200 zombie ninjas to get from place to place in New York City. How in the hell do you do it? It’s not like you can just all get on the subway. Does The Hand own its own limo service? Now that I think about it I’m sure they do, but are you going to roll up the stretch Humvee with the dancing pole in it to get your ninjas from place to place? Maybe you would. My experience with zombie ninjas is relatively limited.

 

In any case, Frank Castle really did add something to Daredevil. My most comics-aware friend and I argued for days about the difference in approach between Frank Castle and Matt Murdock. Her view, and given the otherwise moderate nature of her character, was that Murdock was being hypocritical since he had no real way of being sure that the extremely rough treatment that he was dealing out to be guys was, in practice, not going to be lethal to them. In any case, she argued, Frank Castle is dealing with some very, very bad people, so it’s probably all for the best that he kills them. Also, and with this part of her argument I had rather more sympathy, Frank is altogether honest, whereas Murdock’s dishonesty with people (particularly Foggy Nelson and Karen Page) was likely to put them at even greater risk than simply telling them the truth.

 

Much as I love Daredevil, and people who know me will know that my interest in that particular character is just this side of obsession, I had to admit that she was right. Of course, I still think that there is a non-trivial difference between the possibility that one might kill or permanently disfigure one’s opponent and seeking to kill them as the first tactic out of the box. On the other hand, it really did no good not telling Foggy and Karen about his avocation, since they were in danger either way, and knowing the actual situation might have allowed them to make an informed choice about whether or not they were cool with that. One thing you’ve got to admit about Frank Castle, when he says something you can be pretty certain that it reflects the state of the world as he knows it.

 

[Before going further I should now point out that there are spoilerish things in what follows. If you intend to watch the series (and strongly suggest that you do) you might want to put off reading this until you’ve done so. Unless you don’t care. Then just plow ahead.]

 

The first five episodes of Punisher were pretty much exactly as I feared. They were slow, overwrought, and featured so many flashbacks to Frank’s dead family that I came to feel that I’d rather that he put me out of my misery than have to watch even one more. You might think that, given the spasm of catastrophic violence with which Frank blazed out of Daredevil Season 2, the list of names on his list of those-upon-whom-vengeance-must-be-taken might be relatively small. But you would be wrong. Much time and effort are expended in episodes 1 through 4 or so establishing that the conspiracy that led to the killing of (the vast majority of) the Castle family was rather more extensive the previously supposed.

 

Ripping their plot from the headlines (or at least of the headlines from a few years ago), it turns out that the whole thing related to a secret CIA running assassination program in Afghanistan. Indeed, one of the most excruciating episodes in the whole series explores a great depth the kind of program that anyone with a lick of sense assumes is going on there all the time. Frank’s foil, as he sets out on the project of ejecting those responsible for his family’s death from this mortal coil is a neurotic former intelligence analyst who, having discovered the operation, was forced to fake his own death and now spends half of his time plotting his revenge from a computer lined bunker and the other half voyeuristically checkout out his family on the spy cameras he installed in their home. I suspect that this was meant to demonstrate the intensity of his concern for his family but invariably came off as creepy and controlling instead.

 

Pursuing the case in parallel fashion is DHS operator Dinah Madani (played by Amber Rose Revah whose previous work include the character of Mary Magdalene in The Bible), who both my friend and I found rather irritating in the first few episodes. This has a lot to do with the fact that the writers have her engage in a romantic fling with another character (Billy Russo) who might as well have “Main Perpetrator” tattooed across his forehead. They seemed very much to be setting up the all too frequently seen “woman gets played” trope. This turns out not to be the case, or at least to the extent that it does, it sets up a massive turning of the tables which adds a very interesting dimension to the plot. In too many thrillers to count, the bad guys are the sort of infallible supermen, only brought to heel in the end by the countervailing superhuman efforts of the hero (usually male and bleeding profusely). But Madani’s turning of the tables on Russo, while not quite succeeding in the way, or to the degree that she intended, still shows that he is fallible and this makes the plot significantly more interesting, and more palatable.

 

Karen Page also makes a few turns in this series, and to very good effect. I must admit to being a bit skeptical of Deborah Ann Woll. Her extensive run in True Blood didn’t give one much to go on in terms of what might be expected of her as a dramatic actress. But she was quite good in both series of Daredevil, especially the second one in which her experience of having straight up plugged a guy with his own gun in Season 1 gives her a basis on which to relate to Frank Castle. My friend, who managed to get through the whole of the series a few days before I did, swore up and down that the relationship between Frank and Karen Page, which is not quite romantic but not simply friendly either, made a lot of sense. I told her I thought she was nuts but (as usual) she turned out to be right. Frank and Karen’s relationship works because he is always and unfailingly honest with her. Unlike Murdock, who simply couldn’t understand that Karen’s need for honesty trumped all the other stuff, Frank only speaks truth to her. She knows it and respects it. Also, unlike Matt, who wants to argue the ins and outs of the superhero code, Karen really just wants to ask Frank where it will all end, once he goes ahead and does what he says he’s going to do.

 

TheDefenders-s01e03-1As an aside, and unrelated to any other serious topic, I ship Messica (i.e. the relationship between Matt Murdock and Jessica Jones). I know with certainty that this will never happen. Canon calls for Jessica Jones to be with Luke Cage, and that’s fine, although I have a little trouble believing that the fact of Jessica’s having killed Luke’s wife wouldn’t present problems, Killgrave mind control or no. The writers of The Defenders did a really nice little vignette with Matt and Jessica that highlighted how well their personalities work together. They’re both damaged by things that happened to them in childhood, and both have a sort of challenging relationship to the truth. Jessica would probably be better for Matt because she doesn’t need to hear the full story about every last thing. Also, she’s pretty indestructible and very much able to take care of herself, so being with Matt wouldn’t engage his (very irritating) savior complex. Perhaps most importantly, Jessica is willing to talk to Matt in a way that he takes seriously and that would keep him in line. One of my very favorite scenes in any of these Marvel/Netflix productions is the one in which Matt Murdock tries stop Jessica Jones (who he’s only just met) from doing something dangerous to which she responds, “If you grab me like that again, I’ll punch you so hard, you’ll see.” It was a message that Matt needed to get, delivered in such a way that he got it.

 

Much as I started out to write an unstintingly negative review, I actually found Punisher at least reasonably enjoyable in the end. There is no magical Kunlun bullshit, and Finn Jones is nowhere in sight (although it would have been nice to see Frank bust a cap in him, but anyway…). There is also a refreshing absence of ninjas, and (unlike in the case of Daredevil) there isn’t any attempt to force the characters into relationships that don’t make sense. It does contain one of the most gratuitous and amateurish sex scenes I’ve ever witnessed (you’ll know it when you see it). It is graphically and catastrophically violent, but anyone spinning up Punisher in the first place should be prepared for some grisly images. To its credit, Punisher manages to integrate some story elements that, if they don’t quite disrupt the expected order of things, at least make it more bearable than thirteen unreflective hours of splattered brains, spurting veins, and man pain would have been. Having said that, I do also want to point out that there are a lot of things that I would have preferred to see. These include a Daredevil series without significant ninja intervention, a Jessica Jones series that focuses on her work as a P.I. and doesn’t involve Killgrave, and an Iron Fist series in which Danny Rand falls into a jet intake in the first five minutes and everyone moves on with their lives.

 

I recognize that you can’t always get what you want. And the fact of the matter is that the whole Marvel/Netflix thing is likely not long for this world, since Disney bought Marvel and is planning to offer its own streaming service in 2019 (or so rumor has it). But for the time that they have left together, and for anyone else planning on doing superhero miniseries, it is really worth thinking hard about whether whatever project you’ve got going can actually support the number of episodes you have planned. Punisher was ok, but all the stuff that went on in episodes 1-5 could have been much condensed without serious loss. Jessica Jones had a lot of dead space, Daredevil Season 1 had interminable scenes of bad guys sitting around talking about doing bad things, and Season 2 was going pretty good with the Matt/Frank interplay until it jumped the shark and boarded the express train for Ninja-ville. Defenders was, oddly enough, somewhat too short, although it seemed to drag on at the end due to a surfeit of (you guessed it) ninjas. Perhaps the larger lesson here how you do what you do is at least as important as what you’re doing to begin with.

 

John from the East Side

Review: Dödsrit

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , on December 30, 2017 by Magadh

Dödsrit S/T Alerta Antifascista Records/Bloodsoaked Records

 

dodsrit1Moments of absolute perfection are rare. This is probably a good thing since they are indubitably subject to a sort of quantity theory. If we didn’t have things to gripe about, even in the context of things we like, the world would be a duller place. And if our hopes and desires were always being optimally satisfied, life would likewise be impoverished. Maybe the philosophers of dissatisfaction are correct when they say that the payoff that we get never rises to the intensity of the expectation. But there are moments when the joy of realization’s asymptotic approach to the ideal gives one something approximating the joy of real fulfillment.

 

My most recent brush with this region of experience was the first time I spun up Dödsrit’s self-titled mini-LP, available via Bandcamp from Germany’s Alerta Antifascista Records (and in Sweden by Bloodsoaked Records). This disc literally has it all. From the cover photo featuring hoary northern woods bathed in fog, to the skillful melding of crust and black metal styles contained within, Dödsrit is constantly demanding an answer to the question: How could this be done better? And, frankly, most of the time I am left concluding that it couldn’t.

 

The driving force behind this epic is former Totem Skin guitarist Christoffer Öster, already of worthy renown. Those who follow the crust/h.c. scene will know without needing to be told of the complex brilliance of that band. Over the course of two full albums and a number of other releases, Totem Skin bludgeoned listeners with an effective mix of dark styles: from crust, to black metal, to screamo, to passages that verged on the more esoteric realms of emo. Their collective talent for arrangement and composition left in its wake a collection of ripping h.c. cuts the quality of which holds up with the passage of time.

 

In Dödsrit, we have the quintessence of this stylistic mix. The songs are slimmed down (relatively), sacrificing complexity for epic power. Bombastic melodies spiral over cascading blast beats, before spilling vertiginously over broad expanses of battering double bass aggression. This release comprises only four songs, but they are longish, ranging from five to eleven minutes in duration. The question one always has to ask when h.c. and crust bands start crossing the 3 minute barrier with regularity is: Do these cuts really contain enough ideas to justify added length? I will say that, after repeated listening, Dödsrit always leaves me wanting more.

 

It is only a few years since blackened crust really started to be a thing. It’s not totally surprising that those on the darker end of the crust scene would want to try to integrate some of the power and atmosphere that lower fi black metal has often managed to achieve. But all too often this amounts to the excuse for the multiplication of blast beats without concomitant melodic or atmospheric overlays and it ends up just sounding lame. Dödsrit, on the other hand, are the real deal. The integration of crust and black metal elements is absolutely seamless, carrying the listening along on a flood tide of sonic aggression and dark ambiance.

 

Such is the perfection of this record that it’s a little difficult to know where Dödsrit could go from here. At least in my opinion, and you’re welcome to think what you want about what I have to say, they’ve set the bar incredibly high. But that’s a question for the future. For now, it is enough to ride along with them into battle among lonely graves and northern fogs.

–John from the East Side

Review of Destruction: Text I

Posted in Reviews with tags , , on September 21, 2017 by Magadh

Oliver Sheppard, Destruction: Text I (Dallas, TX: Ikonograph Press, 2017)

 

destructionIt takes guts to write and publish a book of poetry at this point in the history of the world. This has little to do with Adorno’s comment about the barbarism of writing poetry in the wake of Auschwitz (I think he was talking about lyric poetry and in any case he backed off it later). No, the real problem with pursuing the poetic form at the current moment is the fundamental absurdity of the modern. Historically, poetry has involved the creative use of language to write with greater depth (or with greater precision) than that available in the medium of prose. In the spectacular society in which we live the depths beneath the surface have evaporated and precision, more often than not, is simply a matter of giving the right name to the right specter.

 

Oliver Sheppard’s Destruction: Text I strives mightily against the bonds of the age. The pieces in this volume do not, unlike so many exemplars of modern poetry, exhaust their energies in parsing the minutiae of human internality. Sheppard’s writings are distinctly external in their focus, ranging widely from the mechanized battlefields of the Second World War’s Eastern Front to the event horizons of collapsing stars. This may strike one a thinking big in a way that strains the bonds of coherent conception, but Sheppard’s pieces are united in the consistency of a dark atmosphere that creates a space for the examination of human and trans- (or perhaps super-) human experience.

 

These pieces are, so far as I am aware, something of a change of mode for Sheppard. I will offer as a caveat that we know each other in that via-the-internet sort of way that is common for people whose subcultural attachments overlap. I can’t remember whether his work first came to my attention because he published at Souciant.com (which I am also a contributor) or whether I only found out about that later. But I do know a few verifiable facts. Oliver Sheppard is simply the most passionate fan Killing Joke that I have ever met. He also follows death rock with the same sort of obsessive passion that I have for European hardcore. Where I would be talking about Pandemonium’s Wir fahren gegen Dreck he can discourse at length about Fliehende Stürme’s An den Ufern.

 

Perhaps it is this virtuoso level familiarity with the obscure that first interested me in his work. In pieces for Cvlt Nation or (more occasionally) Bandcamp, Sheppard gives his readers access to a pool of knowledge that is as broad as it is deep. What seems to pull it all together is a dark, although not to say morbid, aesthetic. Given the chance, Sheppard will lead you down dark and unfamiliar paths, to moments of weird beauty not blighted by the death fixation of a lot of the figures one meets along these ways. The pieces collected in Destruction: Text I exemplify this well.

 

Reading Sheppard’s poetry is a little like listening to a conversation between Nietzsche and William Blake during a showing of Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron. Using a wide range of forms and cultural references, Sheppard illustrates the human condition in ways that take as much account of its absence as its presence. Thus we find early in a cycle of Second World War-themed pieces, the following:

 

Severe grey angles

Turretless malevolence

Squat steel gunned bulwark

 

It takes a certain kind of audacity to compose a cycle of haikus about war on the Eastern Front, but it is precisely this breadth of conception that lifts this collection above the mean. Sheppard seems fascinated with the human, but also with the superhuman, with the action of entities at the far ends of space or, as in his references to Persephone, descending into the underworld. In a piece entitled “Achromatic #1” Sheppard writes,

 

A hyperdimensional SPHERE of battleship gray

Lays some distance southwestward of its

RECTANGULAR and TRAPEZOIDAL cousins.

 

The terms and mode of expression are stark, recalling Pound’s quotations from the letters of the vortecist sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska before the latter’s death in battle in 1915. Indeed, Sheppard’s writing is redolent of the desperate modernism of the interwar period, inflected through the lens of late 20th underground culture. His mix of longer and shorter pieces and quotations from other authors (both in epigrams and longer elements) gives the feel of Hannah Höch’s collages, but with a later 20th century atmosphere in which playfulness has been replaced by an ineluctable consciousness of the gigantic and of the finitude of things.

 

There are moments at which it appears that the fabric of reality is coming apart at the seams, held together only tenuously by the images that mediate human social relations. Sheppard’s darkly beautiful poetry investigates the dark interstices of this system of images, looking both below and beyond to stark and often threatening realities. Often the human is absent, but it is reconstituted by reflected into this emptiness, leaving the afterimage of an unsettling universe. If there is a barbaric dimension to this writing it is a barbarism that, in a certain sense, works to recover the human.

Review: Power Trip

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on April 13, 2017 by Magadh

Power Trip, Nightmare Logic, Southern Lord

power trip2There are a number of things that differentiate this disc from Power Trip’s previous outing (2013’s Manifest Decimation), but the one that you’re really going to notice if you’ve heard the earlier release is the production. Manifest Decimation was a good record in a lot of respects, an example of the mid-80s style thrashmetal that occasionally lifts its head above the sea of black metal and grindcore. It has some pretty good songwriting and a decent degree of aggression. The main problem was that the recording seemed so awash in something (reverb probably) that it made the songs hard to discern.

I’ve got no problem with raw recording values in metal and hardcore. Sometimes, given the right overall tone, it can add an element of atmosphere (I won’t tax you by reciting where I think this is the case but if you page back some of my reviews you will find ample evidence). But in the case of Manifest Decimation, it just made it difficult to follow the chord changes without really adding the needed atmospheric dimension.

I am happy to report that this problem has been sorted in their new disc. Nightmare Logic is crisply recorded and features a wealth of punch, intense thrash metal cuts. Those who heard their split with Integrity from last year will have seen the moves in this direction, but the release of Nightmare Logic shows that they can put it together for a whole album’s worth of material, which is worthy of note. And let’s be clear: this album absolutely rips. They don’t have quite the tonality of a band like Havok, but they are none the worse for being a bit nastier.

power trip1As you might expect given the four year gap between their full releases, there are other improvements to be noted. Power Trip have made notable advances in terms of songwriting and arranging. Their sound is reminiscent (at least to my ear) the thrashmetal bands that labels like Combat seemed to release with such frequency back in 1980s, particularly Dark Angel, with whom they share more than a passing similarity. That said, their songs are more complex and intensively developed than Dark Angel were in their heyday.

That said, their songs are more complex and intensively developed than Dark Angel were in their heyday. Power Trip’s songs are full of little back picked elements that add power in ways that are hard to quantify or to describe in the abstract. I found myself thinking of the picking style of Artillery’s first couple of records. The drums are clearer as well, and I really loved the snare sound, thick and thudding, but with enough tone to cut through and be heard.

Nightmare Logic is one of the best exemplars of the thrashmetal genre to be released in at least the last five years. It’s got a lot of variety and changes of speed, and the musicianship is about as close to flawless you’re ever going to hear. I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting a great deal to begin with, these guys have produced some really hard rocking stuff that’s going to be infesting my stereo (and tormenting my neighbors) for a long time to come.

Review: Cruz

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , on March 31, 2017 by Magadh

Cruz, Culto Abismal, Sentient Ruin Laboratories

cruz1The dregs of this shit week were enlivened by the receipt of this awesome disk. What we have here is eight helpings of extremely tasty death metal riffage. It’s mostly middling in tempo (right about the speed and gruffness of Corpse’s classic “Black Dawn) and I have to say I like that. Blast beats are cool and all, and they really seemed like something novel to me when I heard Napalm Death do them in the 1980s, but they’re really not my favorite part of death metal.

These Barcelona thrashers have a pretty good formula: crushing, straightforward death metal with galloping beats and utterly tortured vocals. There are a lot of bands to which they might be compared. They sort of remind me of a kind of grimier sounding version of Entombed, although they generally don’t get up to the speeds that Swedes moved at. But that’s just fine. Cruz have an idea of what they want to do and the execute their plan with panache and aggression.

cruz2This disc has been on repeat in my car for the best part of a week now, and every time I listen to it I pick up some nuance or vibe that I hadn’t caught before. The thing that differentiates them from a lot of bands that don’t roll at super high speeds is that their riffs are complex and compelling. They’re not content to just chug along on damped bar chords. Not to harp on the Entombed thing, but their riffs sort of put me in mind of a more aggressive version of Clandestine.

The sound of this record is absolutely perfect: dark and dismal, but clear enough to let the music shine through. Culto Abismal was recorded and mixed by Javi Félez (bassist in Graveyard who are only marginally less awesome). It was mastered by none other than Brad Boatright, who pretty much turns everything he touches into dark, thrashy gold, and this is no exception. Boatright brings a certain bleak aesthetic to everything he does, and Culto Abismal is a perfect example of this. It is a dark, swirling mass of sound rolling forward with the momentum of a freight train.

Yeah, just to sum up, this is the best thing I’ve heard since the last Martyrdöd album came out, and but for the awesomeness of that record it would be the best release that I heard from 2016. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to crank this up again and keep on rocking until the apocalypse descends.

Review: Our Place of Worship is Silence

Posted in Reviews with tags , , on March 28, 2017 by Magadh

Our Place of Worship is Silence, The Embodiment of Hate, Broken Limbs Recordings

 

opwis1This came out in October of last year and I really meant to review it then. But at that point I was so drowned in real world foolishness that it slipped away. But I guess that’s how it always seems to work. I’m seldom right up on the cutting edge of events.

 

The first thing that needs to be said about this record is that it nearly caused me to wreck my car on the highway. This was not due to its overwhelming quality, but rather to the peculiarity of its recording values. I have a car stereo that’s old enough to where I can’t like my phone to it wirelessly and have to depend on a hardline connection. Quite often the first sign that the jack is breaking is that only one of the stereo tracks will play. As I made the turn onto I-90, I must admit that I was rather distracted at the thought that this was happening and my efforts to jiggle the cable back to life I nearly ran off the road.

 

opowis2The fact of the matter is that this record sounds like it was recorded in a sewer pipe by a crew of bigfoots (bigfeet?) who stumbled on to someone’s gear all set up and decided to bang out some death metal. Strange as it may sound to say it, this actually works. There are lots of records that one could point to in which the the deficiencies of the recording actually end up adding, in some only partially expressable way, to the quality of the output. One example might be Sacrilege’s Behind the Altars of Madness, where the imprecision of the recording process gives the music a dark, swirling quality that makes up for any lack of clarity is made up for richly in terms of the atmosphere it creates.

 

The Embodiment of Hate has a grubby, discontinuous quality which holds the interest quite nicely. I’ve read other reviewers compare this early Nihilist demos, but to me it sounds like Nominon, especially in their demo phase (which can be heard here, here, and here). In any case, the comparisons are more about tone and texture than the actual music itself. The music is guttural, the tuning low, I mean really low. I could probably hear this music better if I was an elephant or perhaps some species of gray whale, but the parts that I can hear I like.

opowis3I suppose that my only real beef with this record is that off all the changes in level amongst the various instruments I find that the guitars are never quite as loud as I’d like them. Of course, I’m a guitarist, so caveat very much emptor. I feel like I can hear different things more prominently at different times. The effect of this is to give each cut an individuality that their collective grunginess and simplicity might not intrinsically convey.

 

In all seriousness, this is a pretty ripping slab of death metal. The riffs are dark and unrelenting, and the vocalist sounds like he’s spent the last six months gargling masonry nails. They’ve found a way to write simple, straighforward metal songs that keep you interested. It doesn’t sound clean or clear, but it sounds right and that is, in fact, a lot more important.

The Return of Jessica Jones

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , on March 20, 2017 by Magadh

jj2I’ve been a little behind in my comic reading, so I’ve only just gotten current on the run of Jessica Jones that’s going on right now. This was a title that I had (and to an extent still have) high hopes for. Jessica Jones is an interesting character and, Brian Michael Bendis (who wrote the original Alias series of that title) is running the show again, and it comes with a reader’s advisory tag, which at least means that people confronting life threatening emergencies won’t respond by saying “oh darn.” Having gotten through the first arc I will say that, although I enjoyed it, the presentation of Jessica Jones has, once again, not quite lived up to the excellence of Bendis and Gaydos’s original.

 

Ok, I’ll admit it, I’m kind of obsessed with Jessica Jones. I blame my pal Meredith, who first turned me on to Brian Michael Bendis’s original arc from Alias that ran from 2001 to 2004. When I got done with it I was pretty much ready to give up reading comics because I wasn’t sure there was anything better left to do. Bendis’s arc had an undeniable brilliance. It combined elements of continuity and discontinuity to tell a compelling story. For instance, the creators used collage in a way that I have not seen very often (especially in Marvel-linked titles). They also brought in J. Jonah Jameson in just about the most interesting way I’ve ever seen. There’s a seriously hilarious sequence in which Jessica Jones is out on a date with Scott Lang. They’re having dinner at an outdoor restaurant when Dr. Octopus rolls by being chased by Spider Man. They spend a moment considering whether they’re going to do something about it, and then Scott Lang says something like, “I don’t really have my gear with me” and they go back to their date.

 

Jessica Jones is interesting because, and precisely to the extent, that she doesn’t fit the traditional mold of the comic book super hero.  Bendis created a character that is an expression of the complex web of agency and fallibility in which human beings live their lives. She was an Avenger, but decided that she didn’t really fit in there. Instead of going out as a solo costumed hero, she chose the more low key life of a private investigator. This is clearly meant to be read as an outgrowth of her will to define and defend her own agency. Being part of the Avengers means compulsory teamwork. Being an individual costumed hero also means being beholden to others, perhaps to the public at large, but at least to screwball pseudo-populists of the like of J. Jonah Jameson. Working as a private eye allows her to control the obligations that she takes on.

 

And therein lies a further point of interest. Although Jones is a reluctant hero, she also feels a certain obligation to help people who are vulnerable. While this sort of duality in terms motivation is not entirely unheard of in the world of superheroes, more often than not it is rendered in the key of macho which effectively drains its emotional force, at least for readers older than about 12. Bendis has really done the world a service by presenting us with a female superhero who doesn’t have to be perfect, who gets drunk sometimes, who fails sometimes, and who is still dead set on living her life on her own terms and no one else’s.

 

The central event in the Bendis narrative is Jones’s encounter with Zebediah Killgrave (alias the Purple Man), a deeply nasty individual capable to compelling people to unquestioningly obey his commands. There’s a lot of backstory to this guy, the essential points of which can be picked up here, but suffice to say that this former Daredevil villain is seriously horrifying. Jones’s interaction with him is particularly grim because he takes from her the one thing that she views as most essentially hers (agency), turning her into a weapon for the accomplishment of his ends.  Ultimately, Jones is able to free herself from his control (and breaks his neck) because Jean Grey had implanted a psychic defense trigger in her mind after an earlier encounter with him. Once she knows she has a choice, the reclaims her agency, dispatching Killgrave in the process. The panel below is one of my favorite ever:

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Needless to say, I was really excited when it was announced the Marvel was going to be partnering with Netflix to bring out a full fledged Jessica Jones series. I didn’t know much about Krysten Ritter at the time (although I’ve since watched Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23 and quite enjoyed it), but it seemed to me that casting David Tennant as the Purple Man was a pretty good sign.

 

jj4Sadly, the end product didn’t quite live up to expectations. Partly it had to do with some unfortunately plot decisions. At one point, Jessica Jones decides that the way to show people Killgrave’s power and criminality by getting herself thrown in a supermax prison. Ok, clearly it’s very difficult to demonstrate mind control to people, but this is a plan that couldn’t possibly work, and, although I think it was meant to reflect her desperation, it ended up making her seem stupid. Later on in the show, Jessica Jones manages imprison Killgrave in a room where his voice is muted (his power is based on the interaction between his voice and some sort of microbe that he exudes). She comes up with a plan that involves introducing Killgrave’s parents into the room. Shockingly, this plan also goes horribly, horribly wrong and anyone who thought about it for around two second beforehand would have been able to predict this.

 

At a more general level, I really wish that we had gotten to see a bit more of the Jessica Jones PI aspect of things. Killgrave was made creepier by his absence. In fact, his proxies were much more frightening than he was when he was actually on screen. Although Tennant played him to nauseating perfection, it would have been better if we’d seen him less. But there was simply no way to do that given the fact that they had cast a big name like Tennant. It wasn’t his fault, and in a way it wasn’t fault of the people producing the show, since I’m sure that they reckoned (correctly) that Tennant’s name would draw viewers who might not be all that interested in the character of Jessica Jones. Still, it meant that they had to turn him into a middle of the screen type of villain, which didn’t really do the overall atmosphere of the show any favors.

 

jj3I had high hopes for the new comic version, and these hopes may still be fulfilled, but I’m afraid the first mini-arc hasn’t quite filled the bill. We start with Jessica Jones having just gotten out of prison, for what we are never actually told, but it’s something that compromised her relationship with the Avengers as well as with Luke Cage, the father of her child. The arc starts off strong, with some interesting interplay between Jones and Cage, and with some of the kind of JJ as detective material that one really wants to see. But then it spirals off into some weird things that don’t seem to develop JJ’s character very much. Worse yet, from my perspective anyway, is the connection that it forges with the Civil War II arc which a) went of for too long already and b) wasn’t all that interesting to begin with.

 

One of the things that the comic version has going for it is that, unlike with the MCU and their Netflix partnership, it’s possible to include some other superheroes  without paying whatever gigantic sum it would cost to get Chris Evans or Robert Downey Jr. (to say nothing of Scarlett Johansson) into the action. So it would have been nice to see some other superhero type interactions over and above the obligatory stuff with Carol Danvers and a somewhat entertaining Jessica Drew cameo.

 

What the original comic series has going forward that this new version seems to lack is a kind of emotional depth. It’s not as if the story isn’t entertaining, but there doesn’t seem to be the same collage-like approach to creating the character that made the first iteration so entertaining. Admittedly this isn’t entirely the fault of Bendis and co. In the first place they did create a very high bar. And in the second, they were very much working with a tabula rasa in terms of Jones’s character, since she hadn’t been developed very extensively at all up to that point. Still, it would be nice to see a bit more of the little story pieces that add up to something more than the sum of the parts.

 

Just so we understand each other, I think this is worth getting. The artwork is dark and beautiful and sometimes almost looks like woodcuts. They’ve had a series of covers done by David Mack (who also did the covers on the rerelease of the original series), predominantly in watercolor (or at least so it looks to me) and those are really beautiful. Given the creative team involved and the willingness of Marvel to put money into this title (since there’s going to be a second JJ series after she appears in The Defenders later this year), there’s every reason to believe that they can up the level of quality to what it was in the original. But it hasn’t quite gotten there yet.